Andrew Bartlett’s Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts is a major study on the question of how women and men are to relate to each other according to the Bible. Bartlett approaches the question from a more judicial approach, using his experience as an arbitrator as well as his background in theology to shed light on the biblical texts.
The book is more than 400 pages of text and it is filled to the brim with exegetical insights. The first chapter is about tradition and unity; the second explores 1 Corinthians 7’s implications for marriage and male-female relations; the third interprets Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5; the fourth focuses more closely on Ephesians 5; the fifth examines what Genesis 1-3 has to tell us about men and women; the sixth looks at 1 Peter; the seventh through the eighth focus on 1 Corinthians 11; the ninth and tenth look at the meaning of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and its place in Scripture; the eleventh through the thirteenth are about 1 TImothy 2; the fourteenth surveys the biblical evidence for women leaders; the fifteenth asks about women elders in light of 1 Timothy 3; the sixteenth and final chapter brings the conclusions together and offers a way forward. Appendices explore methods of biblical interpretation, arguments against mutual submission, uses of the Greek word authenteo, the structure of 1 Timothy 2:12, interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:15, shortcomings in complementarian readings of 1 Timothy 2, and translation issues.
Bartlett begins with a chapter on “revising tradition, seeking unity” in which he looks into how these issues have become as divisive as they are alongside the development of various views. Here it is particularly of interest that Bartlett spends some time arguing that the “complementarian” view is not the traditional view of the church. It is demonstrably the case that complementarianism is not, in fact, that traditional view, despite many of its proponents claiming that title. Bartlett shows that the traditional view, in fact, viewed women as ontologically inferior to men. Woman, on that view, was by nature inferior. By contrast, Jesus explicitly went against his cultural conventions and elevated women throughout the NT. Additionally, modern complementarianism at least claims to support the equality of men and women, itself a direct contradiction to the traditional view.
1 Corinthians 7 is extremely important to the questions related to male-female relations. Bartlett notes that this chapter gives the only explicit details about how decisions are to be made in marriage. Despite the clear importance of this passage to the questions at hand, then, it is curious that so few complementarians offer thorough exegesis of the text. Bartlett notes the various qualities of male-female relations brought to the front in this text, including that they have equal duties in the marriage bed, equal authority to the other partner, the same advice to both widowers and widows, same restrictions on divorce, same rule about unbelievers for men and women, the spiritual impact of the spouses on each toher, the same advice for engaged persons of either sex, the same advice for married/unmarried persons of either sex, and more (25-26).
1 Peter finds that husbands are to give honor in the same way as wives are to do so. English translations may obfuscate the mutuality of the relevant passages, but in 1 Peter 3:7 there is a clear wording that parallels Peter’s other use of the same notion, thus leading to the conclusion that the honor/respect that many complementarians so often attribute only to the male side of the relationship is mistaken. Bartlett challenges egalitarians to see that there are specific biblical obligations for husbands to wives that he says are “asymmetrical” and thus not something wives must do. Specifically, the concept of self-sacrifice, argues Bartlett, is something husbands are called to do in marriage (62-64). His argument here is indeed challenging, but one might counter that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence–having “asymmetry” in this specific instances does not imply asymmetry in function with certainty.
Bartlett’s careful exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11 deserves a thorough read. Essentially, he notes the various unjustified conclusions from word studies people have drawn from this text. Additionally, he notes problems with Trinitarian theology as taken from the text. The question of what exactly is the “veil/symbol of authority/etc.” looms large, and Bartlett makes a convincing case for reading these passages as referencing sources and hairstyles (143-148). Additionally, he argues that the reading of “a woman ought to have authority over her head” is to be preferred because it avoids major pitfalls of rival views (148ff). It both goes along with Paul’s context in which he specifically mentions women praying and prophesying and also fits in with the concepts related to “source” in the passages.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is one of the best known passages in this debate, and Bartlett makes a convincing case, going along with several other scholars, that this text is, in fact, an interpolation that was not in the original text. This is due to both internal and external evidence, such as preserving the unity of thought in the letter, questions about what the verses are supposed to be referencing, and numerous textual evidences related to the floating of the text in different locations as well as marks that indicate it is likely an interpolation.
1 Timothy 2 is another major section of the book, and Bartlett does a service by laying out the context of the text in great detail. There is little doubt that 1 Timothy was written to discuss false teachings and false teachers, with numerous mentions throughout the letter as well as in 2 Timothy of these problems. Bartlett, however, goes more deeply into the context and uses primary sources to note that it appears as though the letter is referencing astrology specifically in numerous places and that the false teaching is related to sorcery/astrology. This puts 1 Timothy 2:9-12 contextually in a discussion of wealthy women with ungodly conduct who should learn to do good works and learn in full submission to God. The nature of the letter as a periodical sent for a specific purpose must not be ignored.
A survey of women church leaders leads to numerous examples of women in various leadership roles in the church. This leads into a discussion of 1 Timothy 3 and whether women may be elders. English translations have mangled these verses in a number of ways, adding male pronouns prolifically where there are none. Additionally, interpreters have failed to take into account that the list of qualifications parallels qualifications Paul explicitly gives for women throughout the letter as well (318-319).
Bartlett ends the book with a call for Christian unity in spite of sharp disagreements on the place of men and women in the church and alongside each other.
If there is one point of critique of I have for Bartlett’s work, it is the occasional uncritical acceptance of anecdotal evidence in questions of modern application. Nowhere is this more clear than in Bartlett’s discussion of the alleged inherent differences of men and women on pages 82-83. Here, Bartlett chides egalitarians for being “sometimes shy of acknowledging innate differences between men and women” (82). What evidence does Bartlett offer for his own perspective, that some differences beyond child-bearing are “innate”? He offers a journalist’s comment from a game show in the UK, who, in trying to offer a good reason why two all-male teams should be the best representatives for a quiz show, offered the example of her husband who arranges his books in alphabetical and chronological order, and whose “proudest boast is that while on holiday in North Wales in 1974, he won a hubcap identification competition. Who could compete with that? Who would want to?” (82-83). It is honestly difficult to fathom how this single anecdote can be taken seriously as an example of alleged innate differences between the sexes. [Edit: The author contacted me and let me know this was intended as a joke–a possible cultural miss on my part not understanding the joke. I’ve made a correction in the rest of this paragraph.] He also offers a footnote referencing a study that argues for hard-wired differences in how male/female brains have differences. I haven’t read that study, so I can’t comment on it specifically. Again, this is a minor complaint in a massive text, but it seemed out of place and worth commenting on.
Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts is a monumental achievement. It sets standards for rigor as well as for Bartlett’s attempt to find unity in Christ among such hotly contested issues. Anyone who is truly interested in engaging in the questions related to women in the church and home from a Christian perspective will find this book a must read. Highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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